There’s a great scene in Westworld where Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) explains boredom to a young boy whose father has just lobbed the Stressed Parent on Holiday classic “only boring people get bored” at the child. “I always used to think that it was boring people that couldn’t feel boredom,” Ford says to the boy, “and therefore couldn’t conceive of it in others.” Ford, in the middle of a walk through the park, invites the young boy to join him. The young boy agrees because, well, he’s bored. He’d been literally pushing a hoop with a stick before, and anything was better than that.
I mention the scene partly because I’m super into Westworld and its subsoil-deep symbolism right now, but also because it helps frame that strange barefooted stroll Justin Bieber took through the Boston Common during his Purpose World Tour back in May. Yes, grappling with a material world that feels increasingly plexiglass could push you to seek a brief respite. So you leave the shoes and socks in your penthouse suite and tell your bodyguards to give you a little privacy while you go to the park and feed some squirrels that better understand where you’re coming from, you know?
All this to say: Justin Bieber seems pretty bored. He also has two songs in the top 10 of the Billboard 100, neither of which are from his latest album, Purpose. We should all be so bored.
Currently in the thick of this Purpose World Tour — which began last March and will continue into this coming April — Bieber’s boredom is rendered in small acts of rebellion, as well as his carefully constructed and relatively minor reinventions of himself. He is no longer doing those meet and greets, nor is he taking any pictures with fans — it makes him feel like a “zoo animal,” he says. Seven months into the tour, there have been plenty of misadventures. There were the extremely unsanctioned and unauthorized bleach-blonde dreads. There was the conspicuously teardrop-sized face tat in the shape of a cross. He stormed off stage. He quit Instagram. He sonned the shit out of a fan that just wanted a hug.
Like the post–Selena Gomez Bugatti Biebz phase of undocumented capuchin monkeys and Lambo drag races, all of these recent acts of passive and mildly active aggression were big enough to keep him near the forefront of public conversation, but small enough that they didn’t impact his career too negatively. Some of this stuff might have gone unnoticed were he not constantly under a figurative microscope, the same place he has been since Usher found that YouTube video of him singing his little heart out as a derpy tween.
Since then, every little thing he’s done has been “news,” which, admittedly, doesn’t leave much slack for figuring yourself out. The now-22-year-old has gotten to a point where he’s either wilfully ignorant of or genuinely indifferent to his public perception, regardless of the year or so he spent doing face ass-y damage control on it. And that’s probably because no matter what he does, everyone will cheer regardless, because he’s too big to fail. He’s a good-looking white dude with the voice of an angel, just the right amount of edge, and the unconditional love of millions. There are no stakes, though I’m quite sure he’d say otherwise.
At each Purpose tour stop, there’s a set change during which the intergalactically famous pop star is suspended high above the stage in a literal glass case of emotion, looking out on the writhing, screaming, crying masses. The spectacle is pretty on-the-nose regarding the isolating nature of fame, and it could inspire awe, contempt, or honest-to-goodness empathy depending upon how many layers you feel like pulling back. Notionally, it’s loud-sighing, door-slamming, NOBODY UNDERSTANDS ME young-adult melodrama. And the bellyaching over his celebrity is easy enough to dismiss, but given the limbo found between adolescence and manhood is a suffocating space on its own, it’s also easy to imagine growing up in the spotlight is doubly suffocating. Especially so if you feel you have no control over your life, which you might do if you were pushed to hit the same procedural notes multiple nights a week for a year straight while having your likely well-intentioned, but hilariously ill-conceived attempts at connecting with your fans fall short, repeatedly.
So, when you’re feeling like a cog grinding along unnoticed in the great big grand scheme of things or like you’re pushing a hoop with a stick down a path yawning infinitely in either direction, you can do one of two things: nothing or whatever you feel like.
Such as giving yourself an all-around .5, or assembling a side catalog of features people have largely forgotten about or didn’t notice in the first place. I’m not talking about the chart-toppers like that DJ Snake song or the Major Lazer one or that earworm from last year on which Diplo and Skrillex showed uncharacteristic restraint. I’m talking about the other ones.
It’s strange to think that Bieber, one of the five biggest pop stars in the world, someone that you kind of have to be either cold or hot on, has the makings of his own Basement Tapes. There were probably a lot of songs from Adele’s 25 left on the cutting room floor, but she didn’t upload snippets of them to Instagram. Bieber has this secondary discography: an open notebook that says more about who he wants to be than any one of his poorly thought-out public reclamations of personal freedom.
Travis Scott, ‘Maria, I’m Drunk’
Remember how Justin Bieber put out an image-softening apology lead single for what ended up being an entire image-softening apology album? Remember how it was a colorful, whimsical reggaeton smash that was fun for all ages? Remember how like, two or three days later he popped up on a record with Travis Scott and Young Thug sing-rapping “girl I just wanna see what that booty do”?
This song is difficult to lay ears on. When Scott’s Rodeo became available on all streaming platforms, “Maria, I’m Drunk” was noticeably absent. In fact, it can’t be found (legally) anywhere now, unless you sniff out a pitched down version on YouTube. Or [GASP] PAY FOR THE FULL ALBUM ON ITUNES.
Post Malone, “Deja Vu”
Yes, Post Malone, who’s opened for Bieber on the North American run of the Purpose tour, and sort of choked him once, does have other songs that don’t sound slightly different than but pretty much exactly the same as “White Iverson.” Some of them sound slightly different than but pretty much exactly the same as “Hotline Bling.”
Also, Post Malone is either Justin Bieber on the Darkest Timeline or the Brightest, though exactly which is kind of difficult to parse.
The Lost Vocals on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam”
According to Fonzworth Bentley, via The Fader, there’s a version of “Ultralight Beam” with Bieber’s feathery vocals all over it languishing on a hard drive somewhere. And, considering the original is already a year’s worth of Sunday services packed into just under five and a half minutes, my soul will literally ascend into heaven if it ever sees the light of day.
The Lost Riff Raff Collaboration
Riff Raff had been tweeting/talking/boasting about a Bieber feature for his Peach Panther album for almost two years. But when Panther was finally released this past June, there was nary a Biebs feature to be found, which really sucks because Riff Raff posted this clip of Bieber rapping — like, rapping rapping — about throwing cash in a strip club and I need infinitely more of it.
Chance The Rapper, “Juke Jam”
Purposely, “Juke Jam” sounds like it should have been filtered through the speakers at a skating rink as gawky kids whirled around holding hands and filling pauses with dumb questions like, “Soooo … do you like … stuff?”
About halfway through, Bieber floats down from the ceiling like a disco ball for a glistening bridge over the Mount Kimbie sample flip: “Maybe you and I were meant to be, maybe I’m crazy.”
Since the mop-headed, Supras-and-skinny-jeans days, his voice has deepened and matured. He can pull together his pinboard influences to consistently create something pleasing to the ear. You know, it occurs to me that I really enjoy Justin Bieber. I even enjoy his brazen shitheadedness and irreconcilable contradictions. As a matter of fact, I especially enjoy those.